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Au contraire

My friend and colleague cwmackowski posted about writing April 16, and something he said has been bothering me like a hangnail:

... What matters is that we actually write. We write for ourselves. We write to get better. We write.

When we don't, we're not writers.

That last line bothers me, because I disagree.

As LJ readers know, Chris is a prolific writer. Besides an impressive scholarly-historical output, he posts more to his blog in a week than I do in a month. In terms of words on paper, in terms of pixels, the two of us can't be compared.

Yet I don't think he writes more than I do. I am constantly writing in my head. Sometimes the voice is that of a reporter. Sometimes it's an essayist, and occasionally it's a poet. But the voice is ever-present and generates thousands of words every day.

Even not counting the internal voice, I write every day. In routine e-mails, I choose words carefully. When the e-mail is to a student who needs calming or reassurance, or to a faculty colleague who needs clarification on something, I choose words more carefully still.

As for posting here, whether it's a poem or an essay, or even just snippets of thought, I won't do it unless I think my words and thoughts are worth offering to readers in exchange for a few minutes of their time. All writers do this. All of us have different standards. I hit "delete entry" far more than I hit "post." This doesn't particularly bother me.

I respect Chris's writing and wish I posted and published a fraction as much as he does. But I think juggling words in my head is the same as putting a rock into a tumbler so it can be smoothed by sand for days on end. If I'm lucky, a colorful stone emerges from the tumbler—even a gemstone on rare occasions. The time in the tumbler is not a period of not.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this. I do the same, I write all the time in my head, but I don't actually *produce* a lot of writing for others to read. Or even for myself, I write far more in my head than I ever write in my handwritten journal. It makes me feel guilty sometimes, and yet, why should I? Every writer has a different rhythm.
Apr. 25th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
I think I agree. I go through long dry spells during which I can't write, when the only thing in my head is a fuzzy sort of garbled static. Periods of time go by during which the only writing I do is the bare minimum necessary for work, and even that I abhor because it's not "writing" so much as following a recipe. 1 cup of facts, 2 quotes, a lede, a headline and a few appropriate prepositions. Shaken, not stirred, and faxed with a pint of self-loathing. Now, this is a mental circumstance I'm working on fixing, or at least shortening, but am I less of a writer when not actively writing? I don't think so. The way I see it, being a writer isn't so much a profession as a way of being. Even during the times when I stop writing productively, I don't deny my nature as a writer.
Apr. 25th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
True, the thinking about writing and the rearranging of words in one's head is all part of the process. But until those words are actually written down--or recorded or recited in some other fashion--the process isn't complete. The actual quantity of output doesn't matter (spoke to a guy last night who spent a whole day writing one sentence--but at day's end he was satisfied that it was good and it was accurate, and that's what matters).

Alas, I pump out a tremendous number of words, but as anyone who reads them can readily recognize, most of those words are drivel. So it's not even the act of pumping out words that makes a writer--that forethought needs to go into it, too, so that there's substance to the writing.

Gotta have both parts, I thinks.
Apr. 25th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
Gotta have both parts, I thinks.

I agree. Your post only talked about the "after" part, though. As A Red Crayon commented above, "It makes me feel guilty sometimes, and yet, why should I? Every writer has a different rhythm."

Up until very recently, I thought productivity was measured by the word count—specifically, by the count of words offered to readers or potential readers. I no longer believe that's the case—but writers who haven't realized this may beat themselves up unnecessarily. I am now comfortable with the fallow periods, and with knowing something is brewing but not necessarily ready to emerge. Those things used to frustrate me not so long ago.

Edited at 2010-04-25 10:08 pm (UTC)
Apr. 27th, 2010 04:32 am (UTC)
I've been to the "beat themselves up" party a time or two. The period between having a newspaper to write for and figuring out what I was doing with the rest of my life left me convinced that I'd stopped being a "writer" because I wasn't "writing."

Pat, that experience has me leaning in your direction. I no longer think I stopped being a writer through that period, in part because I now suspect the only way I'll stop being a writer is to stop breathing.

I'm grateful for the push that got me blogging (recognize yourself in that one, Chris?) but I now realize I was a writer even when I wasn't spotting myself "being" one.

For me, one of the times that was clearest was the year of the Great Cancer Adventure. Even before a very wise doctor suggested keeping a journal, I'd started doing so. I realized suddenly that I needed to put the experience into words to make it make sense for me. Perhaps another definition of writer?

Apr. 28th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC)
Another definition of writer for sure, Carole, and that making-sense-through-writing is a gift.

I think Cmac, from a utilitarian point of view, nailed the idea of what a writer is—but if I were to define myself as a writer based purely on my output, then a long time ago I would have said, "I'm not one."
Apr. 28th, 2010 01:57 am (UTC)
Yeah, I stubbed my mental toe on that line as well. I get the idea that at some point things should make their way out of the thought bubble, but I know just what you mean... I'm writing in my head all the time.
Apr. 28th, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)
One of us needs to invent a brainwave recorder.
Apr. 28th, 2010 11:41 am (UTC)
That, my friend, would be the invention of a lifetime!

Or maybe not... I remember in 8th grade science, Mr. Kennedy (aka Creepy McCreep)presented the idea that someday there might be an invention that could pull soundwaves from "outer space" (wherever that was) and listen to conversations that had taken place hundreds of years prior.

Just think," he said, "We could hear the founding fathers discussing the Declaration of Independence!"

I was the only kid in that class who was completely freaked out by the idea of someone else hearing my private conversations. Can you imagine if they could get inside our heads? (whoever "they" are)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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